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Beyond Knocking Knees

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

“Success in life means living by your values.” Dr Russ Harris, stress management and performance expert, author

Some years back I decided that I wanted to get back to more public speaking but felt afraid. A friend of mine who did public speaking advised me to attend her toastmasters’ group and it did help. The thing that helped the most was a quote or passage I read somewhere in their materials.

I can’t remember the exact wording, but what I remembered was something like this:

“We won’t help you learn to speak without your knees knocking. What we will help you do is speak WHILE your knees are knocking.”

Actually, that is a pretty good 3 step prescription for approaching the good life. It requires that we first pay attention – are mindful of what is happening with us. We notice that our knees are knocking, we are nervous or overly excited perhaps.

Next, we don’t get caught up in our thoughts or bodily sensations. We don’t judge, we don’t try to change anything, we simply notice.

Perhaps we even understand that this response is a quite common, normal experience for human beings who speak in front of a group. We might even feel kindly toward ourself. (This btw is self-compassion at its best)

Last and here’s a real biggie, we speak despite those knocking knees. Why? Because we have something to say that is hugely important to us. So important that we will do it even if it feels distinctly uncomfortable, scary. We follow our values.

A values-driven life is a meaningful life, but it isn’t always a comfortable, pleasant life. It helps to just know that.

Goals usually are associated with our values. They are the way we direct our values, but we are not always able to achieve our goals. We are, however, often able to live close to our values.

When we think or write about our values, times we have expressed values with our behaviors, it helps us feel at peace. Thinking about our values inoculates us against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as well as strengthens us against temptations that might lead us down dark, unfulfilling paths (many other benefits including increased health have been associated with journaling about values even better grades in school!).

Here’s what is tricky. We are not always so sure what our values are. One of the most fun, easy , fast ways I have found for identifying my own values I learned in a retreat with Dr. Joan Borysenko.

When we did this exercise (more or less what I remember...below), we didn’t know why we were doing it. It just seemed interesting.

Write down the names of three people – living or dead, maybe even characters in a book or movie that you admire. Then write a few lines about why you admire these people/characters.

Afterwards, look at what you have written, notice the values or words that stand out. These are quite likely things that matter to you, that guide your inner core, that light you up.

Dr. Borysenko went so far as to say that these words and values circled comprise the "real" us.

We might even look back at times throughout our lives when these values have shown up in our actions, our choices. We might enjoy exchanging values-based stories with others ...which can lead to authentic intimacy.

As I thought about the toastmasters quote, I realized that this approach is what therapists might call psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility requires mindfulness, attention to what is happening to us (our emotions and inner thoughts), not getting caught up in our thoughts or feelings (not trying to suppress or negate), and continuing to move forward toward our values.

Psychological flexibility is the staple skill of a therapy called ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). This morning I listened to the founder of ACT, Dr. Steven Hayes and read his most astounding blog to date.

A little background. I have mentioned Hayes before in these blogs. He had a panic attack later in life which devastated him. His pain led him to research which has culminated in ACT. (Hayes says that those times when we experienced great joy AND great pain can also be pointers to our values.)

Hayes has conducted with his team what he labelled the Death Star project because of its immensity and conceived impact. A team of fifty researchers analyzed over 55,000 studies (taking more than four years to complete).

Bottom line. Psychological flexibility (and mindfulness which is a part of psychological flexibility) is THE largest factor identified to date in helping us become happy, functional, people who are living well. It incorporates self-awareness, emotional stability, and soul-work.

Noticing our thoughts and feelings, accepting them without getting entangled, and continuing to proceed toward our values (and associated goals). Hey, that's the toastmaster approach…helping us speak (or do whatever is important to us) even though our knees are knocking.

And, there are many good stories of people who were extremely anxious about various types of performance who successfully delivered after practicing more self-compassion or psychological flexibility.

Is that not the definition of success? Doing what we care about? Moving (at least on most days) toward a life worth living - toward the life our Real Self calls us toward?

How might we use the toastmaster approach and journey toward The Good Life together? (If you are particularly interested in psychological flexibility for performance, you may like these articles,, as usual, you can help me write our joint book by sharing your stories and comments. If you are a subscriber, simply reply to this email, love, June)


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